As dawn broke over the rural French landscape of Ouches, Michel Troisgros, flanked by his sons César, Léo and close members of their team embarked on a poignant journey on foot from La Maison Troisgros in Roanne to their new restaurant Le Bois Sans Feuilles, in Ouches, their way illuminated solely by a lantern. Its flame was lit from the hearth of their legendary restaurant at Roanne, its light guiding the procession to their new home in the rural south-west of Roanne. In a symbolic farewell to the lineage, and history forged within the four walls of La Maison Troisgros, their new journey is emblematic of the family’s respect for heritage, continuity and l’esprit nouveau.
Cooking in a style that manages to embrace new ideas whilst honouring the tradition of his forefathers, Michel’s cuisine is characterised by an elegant simplicity that has come to define a bold and revolutionary identity for French cuisine. A few months after their historic move, we speak to Michel Troisgros about the legacy of his family name, the significance of his Italian heritage and his vision for the future.
TBE: When did it occur to you that you were the inheritor of a great name?
Michel Troisgros: I was not aware of it until I was 16 when I decided to become a chef and went to culinary school in Grenoble. I only became aware that Troisgros was a famous name through my teachers and my friends who had also chosen to study cooking and hospitality. They all made me aware of the pedigree and prestige behind the name. But despite this association, I never took advantage of it. I was fully aware that I had a mission to accomplish.
TBE: How have your taste, career and ambitions been shaped by your environment?
M: My dad and uncle were both chefs, and lived above the kitchen in the family hotel restaurant. They provided food, a place to stay – it was like having guests at home.I spent my childhood in the rhythm of the kitchen, of the services, and of the clients coming and going. At that time it was like a community, and it was a way of hosting that is very different from what it’s like today. So my decision to go to a culinary school came very naturally to me. It had a sort of continuity to my life up till then.
(Left Pierre, Jean and their father Jean-Baptiste stand outside La Maison Troisgros)
TBE: Speaking of influences, you have said that you owe a lot to both your mother and your Italian Grandmother, Nonna Forte. How have both women shaped your approach to food, taste and culinary craft?
M: I didn’t realise the significance of their influence until I was already an established and experienced chef at the age of 40. It was a friend of mine, the journalist Bénédict Beaugé, who made me realise how much my cooking was geared towards an Italian-inspired, domestic simplicity. In particular, he drew a connection between the acidity particular to my cooking, and linked it to the spirit of Italy where my grandmother was from. It was at that very moment that I became aware of how much my Italian heritage influenced my approach to cooking.
(Above : Jean-Baptiste Troisgros and his wife Marie Badau)
My childhood memories and Italian heritage have inspired me to develop a rather natural cuisine – where ingredients are put next to each other but always without too much fuss or sophistication.
Until then, I focused kind of blindly on the influence of my father, uncle and other chefs I worked with. I had just looked at the professional side of cooking; the cooking in the restaurants,. But my attention was never on the emotional side, the maternal side. It was only at that very moment I became aware how my childhood memories and Italian heritage have inspired me to develop a rather natural cuisine – where ingredients are put next to each other but always without too much fuss or sophistication.
TBE: What were your earliest memories of food and cuisine you shared with your grandmother?
M: When I was a child and teenager, before I joined the culinary school in Grenoble at the age of 16, I divided my time between my room above the restaurant kitchen, and my grandmother’s house that was only a few kilometers away. As soon as I was big enough to go to school by bike, instead of eating at the restaurant kitchen table, I would eat at my grandmother’s. She always cooked something 100% Italian everyday – something imbued with the Italian Spirit. It would be her way of seasoning, of doing things, using good quality products, and always with lots of love, generosity, and a great sense of sharing.
Cooking came with her Italian heritage. She grew up in the countryside in Friul (a region north of Venice), where she learned cooking herself from her mum. And every Sunday morning I took part in the making of either pasta or potato gnocchis with my brother Claude. It was a ritual. My grandmother would spend the whole morning at it with us, just to make us happy. It took hours and hours, usually starting at dawn and finishing at 11. That was the time necessary to prepare this exceptional festive Sunday lunch that alternated between pasta and gnocchis. This is how Italy entered my genes and my personal culture.
(Right : Michel Troisgros)
In hindsight, tomato is the biggest symbol of my heritage, which I did not consider Italian until the age of 40.
TBE: Can you share one of your favourite dishes one of your grandmother’s ?
M: It is not really a dish actually but more of a flavour. Tomato is so representative of Italian food and culture, and tomato sauce is used in so many different ways. I can’t think of an equivalent in French cuisine…maybe mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is very French, and tomato is very Italian. In hindsight, tomato is the biggest symbol of my heritage, which I did not consider Italian until the age of 40. In Half- Italian dishes you can be sure to find tomatoes. For me, the orange zest gives an even more Italian and Mediterranean touch. When you add orange zest in a dish, it gives it a more fruity, Mediterranean taste, further emphasising the Italian influence.
TBE: You have payed homage to the women in your life – your grandmother, mother and wife. Where do they fit into Troisgros legacy?
M: I think the women have played a major role. But in the past, they worked mostly in the shadows of the men.In the previous generations the men were the stars, they were the only ones under the spotlight. The women were never talked about or mentioned, although they played an important role in daily life- in the maintenance of the home, keeping the home beautiful. Both my mum and my aunt contributed to the three Michelin stars which the family restaurant received in 1968. They were also essential in maintaining the three Michelin stars. But my aunt Maria died too soon in the 70’s.
Today, at least in my case, we talk about (my wife) Marie-Pierre in the home. Marie-Pierre is much more exposed than my mother Olympia (Olympe) and my aunt Maria were. I would even say that Marie-Pierre is always ahead of me. Her working skills, her reactivity, her capacity to make decisions are incredible. We are like a team, the house is our house we do everything together. She constantly pushes me forward, she has such an energy and passion for this profession.
(Left : Michel and his wife Marie-Pierre)
The past is not a burden, but rather a stable foundation I can build on and find liberation.
TBE: How do you define your culinary style?
M: It is very difficult to talk about your own work. The no-complication, the absence of complication has always been part of my work, at least the absence of complication on the surface. Of course simplicity, the outcome, the delivery are the result of an experience, of a craft, of gestures repeated extensively.
TBE: Do you find yourself looking back to the cooking philosophies of the chefs that came before you?
M: Purity is the rule. I have a variety of references that are both genetic and practical. I have travelled a lot more that my father and uncle. I have discovered peripheral cuisines from places like Japan that have opened my mind and allowed me to break away from the past, whilst at the same time continue to follow its spirit. The past is not a burden, but rather a stable foundation I can build on and find liberation.
I travelled to Japan for the first time long before it was well-known or fashionable in the culinary world, and I took advantage of it. It infiltrated my cooking little by little without trying to be Japanese. I have always been fascinated by citrus fruits like orange, grapefruit, mandarin. 30 years ago I brought Yuzu back from Japan before people knew what it was. Japan was the confirmation that the more simple it is, the more pure, precise and right it is. The more beautiful, greater, more delicate and the more moving it is.
It is what happened before, that gives us the experience, the serenity, the belief to create something new.
TBE: In one of your earlier interviews, you said that ‘the future is the fruit of the past.’ How much of your past continues to inform what happens in your kitchens?
M: When I wake up I know my purpose – I have received and I am going to give. First of all, I still enjoy my job, and secondly, I know that in a few years I won’t be here. It is now that the future is being written. I think you can grow not only by creating a new place but also when this new place is the result of a story. I strongly believe, and I am even convinced, that Ouches could have only existed through the story of the previous generations. It is what happened before, that gives us the experience, the serenity, the belief to create something new.
TBE: The Trosigros family has always searched for new frontiers. Your father (left) invented the iconic dish – salmon escalope with sorrel, that introduced a whole new dimension to French cooking.
M: You need to cook to find new things. You need to practice, practice and practice more. You need to do, do and do again until something interesting finally happens, such as the salmon with sorrel sauce. Nothing was written on the wall beforehand. Neither the cutting of the salmon in thin slices, which at the time was completely new, nor throwing a handful of sorrels in a reduction of shallots, white wine, vermouth, smoked fish and crème fraîche. Nobody had done it before. My dad was searching for something. This dish was not created overnight, but was the result of a process that required thinking and practice.
We often say that the simplicity of this dish was inspired by cooking for the home.I always heard my father say that my Italian grandmother, who lived in Le Coteau next to Roannes, was a big influence on him when it came to simplicity. When my father was searching for something very unlikely and unusual, my grandmother gave my father a crate full of sorrels, that she had collected that same morning. This crate of sorrel gives him the idea to throw some fresh sorrel in a white wine cream sauce. She contributed indirectly to the creation of this iconic dish, which is still popular today.
(Right : Pierre Troisgros)
We got the idea to pass the flame from the stove of Roannes to the stove of Ouches so that the flame will never be extinguished. So that the fire that is symbolically inside us, could be passed from one place to another, from one generation to the next
TBE: When you closed the legendary restaurant, Maison Troigros, your family and team walked 11km from Maison Troisgros by candlelight to your new home at Ouches. It seems deeply symbolic of the idea of carrying on a legacy.
M: The day before the move, and in the weeks before the closure of our legendary restaurant, I was worried. Marie-Pierre, my sons, and myself had no doubt we would create a beautiful place for the future. The only doubt I had concerned its soul. The place where we lived for 85 years had lots of flaws but it had soul. It was filled with memories. The new place had numerous qualities, but had no soul because we had not lived there yet, and had not created any memories yet.
To overcome this fear I had to think about something that could perhaps make this feeling disappear temporarily, or help me. So I looked into Japanese rituals and ceremonies where flame and light are used to symbolically reassure, bring together, give, gather, and represent spirits to remember and light the way for the the future. So with Marie- Pierre and my son Cesar, we got the idea to pass the flame from the stove of Roannes to the stove of Ouches so that the flame will never be extinguished. So that the fire that is symbolically inside us could be passed from one place to another, from one generation to the next. This moving is also about preparing the move to the new generation, preparing the future. My son Cesar is 30 years old and my son Leo is 24 years old. Both are chefs so the new generation is here and is getting ready.
It is like in a march. It is as if we are marching together towards a goal, in motion together.
TBE: What have you learned from working under your uncle and father?
M: Modesty. Nothing is ever guaranteed. I always make sure to remain close to my colleagues on the job – to listen to them, remain close to their ambitions, and to guide them. To be a chef today, I mean in a company, it means being part of a team. Of course you are the one who gives directions, but at the same time you’re the one who guides and escort – who is in the group not away from the group. It is like in a march. It is as if we are marching together towards a goal, in motion together.
TBE: What would you like to see in future generations of chefs that come through the Troisgros establishment ?
M: I’d like them to be fulfilled. Of course there is a lot of criteria to fill – discipline, organisation (this is not Club Med, of course). But I would say that the priority is that they can learn, be fulfilled , give meaning to their professional life, and closely intertwine this with their life as a whole. I want them to be happy and smile every day because this generates dynamism in a company and it contributes to their well-being. The company is like a community and this group must be intellectually satisfied.
Michel Troisgros is the third generation chef-owner of a 3 Michelin-star restaurant Troisgros. After restoring the original La Maison Troisgros restaurant after the death of his uncle Jean, Michel Troisgros, has played a major role in Troisgros since 1983, maintaining the same high reputation for several decades. Located in rural Ouches, Le Bois Sans Feuilles serves simple, elegant food that maintains the same standard of excellence the family built its name upon.
Food photography – Marie Pierre Morel from ‘L’Italie de Michel Troisgros’.